Sharkstoppers: the consumer activists curbing the excesses of payday lenders

 Republished by of Athens.
Edited by Ellen Kalisperati
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The benefitsof collective actionare obvious on the following characteristic example of organizedmovement in England.

The government’s U-turn on payday lending shows what ordinary citizens can achieve when we get organized.

News that the government accepts the need to cap the cost of credit marks the culmination of months of organising across the country to shine a spotlight on the unregulated practices of high-cost credit companies.

In partnership with our vice-chair Stella Creasy MP, Movement for Change has worked over the past year to build a wide network of activists committed to supporting fairer alternatives. From Unite the Union funding action meetings in Newcastle and Community Union publishing hundreds of campaign packs, to Co-operative party, Credit Union and CAB activists campaigning on the ground, hundreds of people have formed a wide civil society network to work collectively for common cause.

Their recent actions, including targeted negotiations with London Council leaders and the sharing of their stories with parliamentary representatives, have highlighted the damage legal loansharking causes in local communities and the need for government action. Yesterday’s government undertaking to give the new Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) powers to set a cap on exorbitant interest rates charged on payday loans marks a significant staging-post in that work.

Lord Mitchell, who helped to lead Movement for Change’s rally of activists this summer and who tabled yesterday’s amendment, has said that the change will help “those who live in the hell-hole of grinding debt. Their lives will become just a little easier”. That includes people like Karen (not her real name), whose foster father Arthur Breens launched an online petition this week to highlight her struggles with unscrupulous lenders, securing more than 50,000 signatures in three days.

When I met with Karen last month, she was candid about the trap of low-paid work and mounting debts which led her to turn to high-interest loan companies. Karen described to me the devastation caused by her inability to meet rising interest costs and the sheer relief of finally securing help with her family’s support. Yet like many potential activists, she expressed embarrassment and shame at having taken out such loans in the first place and she prefers not to discuss it publicly.

Karen’s is a common story, and one which allows these companies to thrive secure in the anonymity that such embarrassment causes. That is why our method of organising is built around the stories (or public narratives) of those directly affected by legal loansharking. In part, this approach recognises that the wall of silence surrounding the issue of payday lending only exacerbates the problem. The approach also emphasises the self-evident fact that the voices of ordinary citizens, using our lived experiences to motivate others, are the most powerful tools for building relationships and mobilising a wider movement of support.

The momentum that these wide community networks are building together as “sharkstoppers” will now continue with cautious optimism. Wednesday’s announcement is a start but we can and must do more. The challenge is to expand the powerful community relationships which have been the bedrock of this movement to date, kickstarting local actions in every region of the country. The need for people, in our own communities, to get organised has never been more urgent.